Sunday, May 3, 2015

Little Rann of Kutch – Raptures with Raptors

The Little Rann is an astonishing testament to how something so seemingly inhospitable can sustain so much life, in so many forms.  I went there as a novice birder a few years ago and a chance invitation by ace birder Sudheer Puttur gave me another opportunity to return, still as a novice, but a slightly more informed one. And this time, in January, it would still be in ‘season’

Sriram and I set off from Mumbai on a night train (and we were really lucky to get on the train) to Ahmedabad. A quick breakfast of jalebi and fafda later, we were enroute to the Little Rann and made it in time for a late safari! First up, Akshay, our 18 year old guide led us to the Bajana Grasslands and driving by a clump of bushes, he pointed to a bird in the shade and said “Merlin”. A lifer within 10 minutes of entering! It was too far for any good pictures, even with a 500mm, but any closer and we would scare her off. So we settled for some record shots.

Soon after that, we saw another lifer – A Peregrine Falcon. We watched this magnificent hunter on his perch, again a bit far, before he flew off to roost in some shade. Akshay then quickly followed that up with a hat-trick of lifers – Short Eared Owls. And just for good measure, there were three of them in one clump of thorny bush that adorn the Rann. Even as we had the owls pose, we got a bonus lifer – a Greater Whitethroat. Four lifers, what more could we expect?

Peregrine Falcon
A lot more, as it turned out. As we drive past a duck kill (made by a Peregrine) we saw a Greater Spotted Eagle hovering above and he came and settled himself, not very far from the kill. He seemed quite content to rest and didn’t make any moves on the kill, but the Peregrine apparently wasn’t too thrilled. Out of nowhere, he swooped on the Eagle and kept harassing the much bigger raptor until it flew away. Mission accomplished, we thought the Falcon would settled down to feed. But strangely enough, he too flew away and settled far away from the kill. Go figure!

Eagle and Peregrine Falcon
We were still not done with the lifers though. A Gull Billed Tern and Paddyfield Pipit for me and these plus an Imperial Eagle, Open Billed Stork and Woolly Necked Stork for Sriram. Throw in some Lesser and Greater Flamingos and our work for the morning was complete. Time to head back and await Sudheer and Nissim who had set out from Pune by bus, only to encounter a 7 hour traffic jam enroute. They arrived just in time for a quick shower, lunch and then a trip back for the afternoon safari.

Short eared Owl
The afternoon was not as exciting as the morning, in terms of lifers (the merlin and peregrine also didn't show) but we still clocked Pallid, Marsh and Montagu Harriers, a long legged buzzard flying above, shikras and pelicans. A herd of Asiatic Wild Ass made for a lovely show, but the species we were after proved elusive – Desert Fox. We passed by a couple of burrows (at respectful distance) but they proved empty. Seeing tyre tracks head directly to the burrow made us wonder if it had been irresponsible tourists that had led the fox to abandon its burrow. If that indeed were to be the case,  it only aids the cause of those who believe that wildlife tourism is a curse and not a boon for our wildlife. These musings spoilt  a safari that ended with a magnificent sunset, for which LRK is rightfully famous.

Gull Billed Tern
The next morning started with a beautiful male Pallid Harrier right as we entered, but he flew off immediately. It was quickly followed by a Greater Spotted Eagle (another lifer for me) but he too settled down too far away for any quality pictures.  We got the Owls again for a bit, but the Merlin was elusive. While driving along, we saw a Peregrine perched in the open in beautiful light. And we took a long detour around and slowly approached the bird. I was licking my lips at some close up pictures, when a bunch of feral dogs appeared out of nowhere and ran straight towards the Peregrine. The startled bird flew off into a far away perch and we were left cursing the dogs. While interrupting a photo shoot is not really of consequence, these creatures can cause serious damage to the bird species, especially flamingos.

Lesser Flamingos
These beautiful pink birds gave us our highlight pictures of the morning as they came down to feed. Both Lesser and Greater flamingos were the cynosure of many eyes that morning, being a Sunday the Rann was playing host to a surprising number of people. Akshay, wise beyond his 18 years, sagely advised us to avoid Sundays if we wanted to see elusive species, like Merlins or Lesser Kestrels. And we headed back with one more bite of the cherry left in the afternoon safari.

Lesser Kestrel
 A flock of beautiful Demoiselle Cranes apart, the highlight of that safari was another lifer (a Lesser Kestrel) and a really frisky Male Merlin. The Kestrel came into view on a tree as we drove past and even as we all thought it was a common kestrel, Akshay said “Lesser chhe” (It’s a Lesser) We checked our pictures again and the telltale white talons were the final clincher – it was a Lesser Kestrel! The Merlin kept flying from place to place even when we were half a kilometer away, so after a couple of attempts, we left him in peace.

On our way out we saw another magnificent spectacle. As we waited next to the waterbody to take some sunset pictures, we saw a pink swarm suddenly appear from the far side. A large flock of flamingos painted the sky pink as they approached for their evening feed. It was such an energizing sight to see these beautiful, graceful ballet dancers of the avian world put on a superb show for us as they landed in groups in the shallow waters. May god bless these wonderful birds and keep them in good shape for many more generations to enjoy!

And that was the end for Nissim and me, we headed out to Ahmedabad to get the night train. But Sriram and Sudheer still had another day and on that Monday Sriram got yet another precious lifer – A Desert Cat! Lucky Devil.

So there it was, a short, sweet and extremely productive trip to LRK. If I were to sum this place up in two words, it would be ‘Deceptively Hospitable.

Greater Whitethroat

Paddyfield Pipit

Steppe Eagle


Wild Ass

 LRK Trip Guide
The Little Rann of Kutch is set in Gujarat’s Dhrangadhra district, with Viramgam (30kms) as the nearest town. Nearest Metro is Ahmedabad (a little more than 100kms)

Getting there
Ahmedabad is the nearest airport and major rail head. Viramgam is the nearst railway station with decent connectivity with Mumbai and Delhi. The best way is to fly or take a train into Ahmedabad and drive from there.  Lalitbhai (+91 9712171516) is an excellent driver and very reliable as well.

Where to stay
Rann Riders in Dasada offers the ‘Resort’ option. They have their own open top Mahindra Thars and some excellent ‘driver guides’. They are the only ones in the area to have open top vehicles, so as a photographer, you might want to keep this in mind.

We stayed in Patdi, a few kilometres from the Park Office in Bajana. The only stay option there is Hotel Ashirwad, a very basic but clean hotel. He also has a restaurant downstairs with a passable Gujarati Thali.

The food highlight was a dhaba down the highway who served us Bajri Rotli with Dal and Gur. It was absolutely spectacular food and a meal I will remember for a long long time.


If you’re not going with Rann Riders, then you will need your own vehicle and guide. You can contact Pratap (he’s an expert guide and young Akshay’s father) on + 91 9714190990) and he will help you with a jeep as well. The only bummer is that it will be a closed jeep (a Qualis or Tavera most likely)

Wild Ass

Pallid Harrier